When you hear the words “woolly mammoth,” what picture does it paint in your mind?
It’s an iconic, extinct megafauna from the ice age so well-recognized and beloved by all of us, especially children; they see it in movies and documentaries, and in their schoolbooks.
Yet, despite their familiarity, the woolly mammoth feels like a mythical creature. Sometimes, people put them in the same category as dinosaurs, even though they were separated by 65 million years.
What is hard to fathom is mammoths were walking the earth while humanity was building the pyramids. When you tell people that, it sounds crazy—even the pyramids have a mythical quality to them—and opens their eyes to the true timeline.
We were profoundly inspired by Colossal Biosciences’ co-founder, the geneticist George Church, and his pioneering vision: To resurrect the woolly mammoth from extinction using the technological advances now at our disposal.
There was a lot of sequencing data from woolly mammoths appearing around a decade ago and George was a step ahead. He wanted to utilize these genomic sequences and build a technology company that could bring species back and restore ecosystems to mitigate the damage caused by humans—and so did we.
We could lose up to 50 percent of all biodiversity between now and 2050, so we are building technologies that could rewild extinct animals into ecosystems, propelling us towards the goals of conservation groups, and helping human longevity and health care along the way.
What took this project from “is it possible” to “should we do it” was the advent of DNA editing and synthesis technologies; going from reading genomes to writing them. And George’s lab has been heavily involved with large genome assemblies and multiplex engineering of genomes.
The acceleration of software in AI and different machine learning models has helped us. We built an entire software division at Colossal right out of the gate. Part of our model is to spin out technology companies.
We spun one out already called Form Bio and raised separate capital for that just to help us with all the computational analysis of ancient genomes, assembly, comparative genomics, and recommendation systems on what types of tools to use.
These new technologies and their innovations are accelerating. Now, we’re not just making single nucleotide edits, we’re able to do multiplex gene editing of lots of parts of the genome at the same time. We’re also able to leverage increasingly bigger blocks of DNA.
Without all this software and AI, and the new discoveries in gene editing, our timelines for de-extinction would be many years longer. And from this innovation is a ripple effect to many other industries across animals, plants, and humans.
To give one example stemming from our work on the woolly mammoth: There’s a huge need for new tools in elephant conservation but not enough work that has gone into their reproductive biology. Some of that research has significant applications into other critically endangered species.
We need to look at EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses), which kills up to 20 percent of baby elephants every single year. It’s a terrible virus, but there’s no big market from a financing perspective, so not enough technology and resources have gone into that. Our work can help.
Then we can look at things like human-elephant conflict, which through poaching and habitat destruction causes the most elephant deaths outside of EEHV. Humanity encroaching into elephant lands will continue to be an issue.
But mammoths lived in the Pleistocene era and beyond in an area of taiga forest and tundra. So we know we can rewild elephants in that habitat if we can make them cold-adapted using the genomes and lost genes of the of the mammoth.
We could have populations of mammoths that help to replenish the ecosystem and add biodiversity, making it as vibrant as it used to be. There have been some great published papers in the last year on what the mammoth steppe used to look and feel like, including its lost, rich biodiversity.
Fixing that degraded ecosystem with mammoths would create a halo effect over a long period of time. Moreover, we can help build a lineage of elephants that are far removed from human-elephant conflict while developing tools to save existing baby elephants.
De-extincting the woolly mammoth is a great keystone project. It’s hard because they have a 22-month gestation period. But unless a lot more effort goes into elephant conservation then, at some point, we’re going to lose them as a species.
From the perspective of the science, you couldn’t have a better focus for your study. To explore phenotypic traits, and investigate what makes similar species so alike, but also so different that they can inhabit completely different ecosystems.
Elephants and mammoths are ideal for this. Untangling the genomics of mammoths and working on their reproductive biology is thrilling. The irony is that, despite their familiarity, we know very little about their foundational biology, and so we’re building that up, starting with actual genomes.
We’re accumulating one of the largest repositories of Asian and African elephant genomes, and beyond that adding in all of the ancient genomes from same lineage of proboscideans. We’re super excited about all of the secrets that will be unraveled when we look deeper.
Every day, we see this enthusiasm. Moms send emails to say they’re so excited about our mammoth project because their children are enthralled by what we’re doing, and they’re asking where they can learn more. We get teachers asking for curriculum for their classrooms.
We try to push a lot of content out there for people, and we’re working on a docuseries about the project, and we hope that over time we can bring more exposure to the world’s conservation crisis.
But outside of the benefits to the planet, it’s also just a cool, fun, and inspiring thing to be doing.
In the lab, our very talented scientists work day in, day out with the foundational biological material, engineering and analyzing all of the genetic edits to bring back the phenotypes that make the woolly mammoth so iconic.
Our scientists are doing work in weeks that would have taken a graduate or postdoctoral student months or years to complete. We need to work at that pace to be able to produce our first mammoth calves very, very soon.
We must also be sure the genetic engineering is producing the phenotypes we need to recreate the mammoth and its famous traits because the gestation period is the longest of all land mammals.
No one has done this before. One of our big contributions to conservation and de-extinction is to deeply study the foundational reproductive biology of elephants. We fund over 50 postdocs in academic labs. Academia is a big focus of our collaborative work.
Our first mammoth calves will be born in 2028. We’re in the editing phase right now.
We’re big on “parallel pathing”. We don’t wait until we finish one set of work to start another. So alongside the editing work, we’re thinking about animal husbandry, for example. If we did it all in a linear way, it would take much longer to produce calves.
Science is hard. Things could change in the future. But we’re on track for our 2028 goal, which is very exciting.
We look at it in a slightly odd way: We see the birth of the mammoth as day one. That’s the start of the race because we want to continue with the genetic engineering.
First, we focus on the core genes that make a mammoth, and de-extincting those. After that, we are looking at resilience. So, problems like EEHV. Can we solve that and engineer our solution into the genes? Because why would we want our mammoths to be susceptible to EEHV?
Then we’ll also look at other potential enhancements. For example, in areas close to humans, could we mitigate the risk of poaching by making tusks shorter so there’s less appeal to an ivory trader?
The way we look at it, this is fundamentally about rebuilding extinct species for today.
De-extinction is not an isolated event, where it’s 2028 and now we have mammoths. This is one thing we haven’t been successful at getting people to understand. Speciation is a journey. It’s like a river. It’s not a stone.
In our second generation of mammoths, we want to engineer in additional traits, biodiversity, and genetic diversity so we can create inter-breedable herds. Our goal is sustained, healthy populations of these species back in the wild.
People get fixated on 2028. But that’s just the beginning.
On the ethics front, we’ve got esteemed scientific and conservation advisory boards. We have some of the sector’s biggest leaders in there, such as the bioethicist Alta Charo, as part of the company.
We don’t view our role as one to persuade people. That’s not our job. When you’re doing anything big and bold like this, you need to be transparent, and so we are. We’re letting cameras in to document everything. And you need to educate, which we’re also doing.
One criticism we get is the accusation that we’re taking money away from conservation. But that’s just not true. We had a recent conversation with the head of Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation re:Wild who said that’s one of the pieces of feedback they hear.
Yet, they’re one of our partners, and that’s because we’re bringing new money and innovation to conservation.
We’re not going out to big conservation groups and pitching them to give us money over charities saving elephants elsewhere. We go to technology investors instead. We like to think that there’s one less bad software company in the world because we exist.
On top of that, we’re giving away for free all of our new technologies that have an application to conservation. So we’re developing tools for conservation as well as working on projects like the northern white rhino, and the pink pigeon, and elephants in Kenya, Botswana and other locations.
What we’ve found with naysayers is that some are informed. We’ll run towards those people, because you can learn a lot more from an informed critic than someone who thinks it’s a great idea and really loves us.
If they really know the science or the conservation sphere, and have informed criticisms, then that helps us because we want to do things the best way we can. We’re not going to do everything 100 percent right. But we want to learn.
The other thing we try to do is educate people, be it kids or those who don’t really agree with us. We just want them to have the complete picture of what we do, and we’ve found that when we have a dialogue with them, they tend to agree in the end, though it’s a long journey.
Even though we don’t have mammoths or dodos or any other extinct species yet, we’re already starting our plans for rewilding them, because they’ll take a long time to develop.
We announced our Tasmanian tiger working group in partnership with aboriginal leaders, government leaders, and the public at large. You’ve got to have top partners like re:Wild and other conservation groups. You’ve got to have indigenous people. You’ve got to have governments and private landowners. We’re building regional committee hubs and having quarterly meetings to keep them informed about the projects, and then work on the ecological impacts.
That’s a very measured process and we’re trying to be thoughtful and start now to have as few unintended consequences on the ecosystem as possible.
What’s really interesting on the science is there are no gates. There are engineering challenges, but it’s nothing like having to solve cold fusion or faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Some of our biggest goals are just to improve the engineering of the technologies that exist, and we have the tools to succeed.
We’re going to keep the public with us and inspired by providing updates of what we’re doing. And we’ll keep the scientific community informed, too, submitting all of our work to the peer review process for scrutiny and feedback.
On the technical side, in order to scale up to herds given the gestation period of mammoths, we need more breakthroughs of technologies, such as ex-utero gestation, which Colossal is working on.
That’s probably what feels most science fiction about all this. Our 17-person exo-dev team are making incredible progress creating artificial wombs that will enable us to gestate these creatures and make de-extinction a reality.
We’re all in on the mammoth right now and it’s our biggest team.
But we also have incredible teams working on the Tasmanian tiger—or the thylacine—and the dodo. The latter is more of an avian genomics team, and we have aspirations to do other extinct birds at some point, though we’re focused on the dodo right now.
Right now, we’re pretty myopically focused on those big three.
Ben Lamm is the CEO and co-founder of Colossal Biosciences. Eriona Hysolli is Head of Biological Sciences at Colossal and species lead on the woolly mammoth.
All views expressed are the authors’ own.
As told to Shane Croucher.
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